Butch Thompson and the Auburn Tigers defied the odds along the way of making their first College World Series appearance in 22 years.
The Wren native guided Auburn through road wins in the NCAA Regionals against No. 3 overall seed Georgia Tech, then stunned host North Carolina in the Super Regionals on the way to making his first trip to Omaha as a head coach.
“It’s been a blessing and a unique season. I feel like we have experienced every emotion and had some great victories along the way,” Thompson said. “We did have one of the toughest roads to get to Omaha, similar to Michigan, but we played the toughest regular season schedule in the country so that prepared us. Our players hung in there. Last season, we were the last team not to qualify for Omaha after losing in extra innings at Florida, so the resolve and perseverance of our coaching staff and our returning players was very impressive to me this year. We had a great run by our players, and I’m very thankful that our season ended in Omaha.”
Auburn had some tragedy and heartache along the way during its regular season, including when longtime radio announcer Rod Bramblett and his wife Paula were killed in an automobile accident during the SEC Tournament.
“We had a lot of heartache along the way. Rod had been our radio guy for 27 years, and he interviewed me before every game. He was a part of our family, and losing him at that stage was tough on a lot of people,” Thompson said. “I had been here at Auburn before from 2006 to 2008, and he was always just a perfect friend. We also had a tornado a few miles up the road that took 23 lives in February and an officer killed in the line of duty who was a season ticket holder that worked a lot of our games. I had been to seven other World Series, but this was the toughest journey. I think the tragedy gave us another sense of purpose. Good communities rally around each other in setbacks or when tragedy strikes, and our baseball team and our community did just that.”
The Tigers’ trip to the College World Series had plenty of excitement as well. Auburn clinched a spot in the regional championship with a two-out, two-strike walkoff home run against host Georgia Tech, then jumped out to a 13-0 lead in the first inning in a decisive Game 3 against North Carolina in the Super Regionals.
“That was a special, special inning and hard to believe. They went through four or five pitchers, threw 65 pitches, and it took me back to the year before where we were so close to making it,” Thompson said. “Those guys were bound and determined to score as many runs as they could to keep that from happening. It was still the toughest coaching that I have ever done after that though because how would you stand up to the podium after the game if you blew a 13-run lead? There was so much game still remaining, and we were at their field.”
While Thompson had been to the CWS seven times as an assistant, including reaching the championship series with Mississippi State in 2013, he said making it as a head coach for the first time was a special experience.
“Being there with MSU in 2013, I was amazed at how Omaha is still growing. Our sport is continuing to grow, and that’s exciting. That’s the first thing I noticed,” Thompson said. “Every time you make it, they’re all special, but there’s something neat about being able to lead a team there with you as a head coach. You always wonder as an assistant, if or when I get my opportunity as a head coach, will I be able to lead a team to Omaha? There’s something peaceful about accomplishing it, and I’m very appreciative to be able to take Auburn there as a member of the best conference in college baseball. It’s humbling and gratifying.”
Thompson said facing Mississippi State in the first game at Omaha was bittersweet.
“When I knew we were playing them, my first thought was you can’t make this stuff up. Out of 298 schools in the country, of course we’re playing Mississippi State in my first game as a head coach at Omaha. That was my first emotion,” Thompson said. “My second and third level of emotion got me pretty excited because it’s a school that means a lot to me, the one that helped prepare me and cultivate an opportunity for me to be a head coach. As we got closer to game day, that’s exactly who I wanted to play.”
The results of the game didn’t go Auburn’s way – the Tigers jumped out to a 4-1 lead only to see the Bulldogs rally back with four runs in the bottom of the ninth for the walkoff win. Auburn was eliminated in the next game by Louisville.
“I thought our coaches prepared us, and our starting pitcher did a great job. Our offense did a great job against Ethan Small, arguably the best pitcher in college baseball and a guy I helped recruit and went on his home visit,” Thompson said. “We were in a great position to win, and we just couldn’t make one more play. They were a great opponent, and it was kind of on script. But it definitely made it really hard for us because we knew we would have to play great baseball to get back in that tournament. It was a phenomenal game and great to play them. So many people over there mean a lot to me, and they always say it’s great to see us and they root for us when we’re not playing each other.”
Thompson also appreciated the support from Amory and Monroe County during the College World Series and throughout the season.
“Home is always going to be home, and it’s always going to be special,” he said. “I can’t wait to get back to Amory and speak at the Rotary Club on August 8. We have been so busy that we haven’t been home since Christmas, and it will be good to get back for a day or two and see a lot of loved ones and friends. I’m always proud of where I came from, and you want to represent them well and never let them down.”
After three straight NCAA tournament appearances, Thompson said they are somewhat ahead of schedule in accomplishing some goals.
“Sometimes it takes three to four years to get your program in the postseason, which is the first goal. Once you get in there, you have a chance to make a run,” he said. “It was tough in the first year coming in the middle of the year, but once we turned the page that season, that was a head start. These three full years, regionals all three years, supers twice and getting to Omaha finally is a blessing. We were so close at Florida in 2018 that you almost feel like you could have made it to Omaha a few times. We stair-stepped our goals really well, and that’s a blessing because it’s so hard to take over a team in our league with it so competitive. I’m appreciative of Auburn because they gave me this opportunity, and we’re just trying to make the most of it.”
Like the program as a whole, Auburn has seen its pitching staff achieve success during Thompson’s four seasons.
Last year, the Tigers had the No. 1 overall pick in Casey Mize, then came back this season and saw both of their top two pitchers in Tanner Burns and Jack Owen post a sub-3.00 ERA.
“Casey Mize had a huge imprint on our pitching staff, and it’s amazing to lose a No. 1 overall draft pick like him and still find a way to go to Omaha,” Thompson said. “Keegan Thompson, a third-rounder a couple of years ago, really put Casey under his wing and propelled him, so we have had key pitchers that made a huge difference.”
Thompson also credits the addition of pitching coach Steve Smith, the winningest head coach in Baylor history, to his staff during the last two seasons.
“Under him, we went from talking about one or two guys to talking about the staff as a whole. He’s a great help, and he’s continued the last two years to take it to the depth of an entire pitching staff,” he said. “We put our heart and energy into pitching, because first of all, it’s my forte, and second, it’s vital if you want a team to make it to Omaha.”
Thompson has now seen 14 of his former pitchers make it to the majors, including Brandon Woodruff being named an All-Star this season.
“It’s amazing being able to coach this caliber of player and to have 10 to 20 guys in the league right now. I love getting to see Brandon Woodruff pitch in the All-Star Game and see Hunter Renfroe hit all these home runs and also guys like Chris Stratton, Kendall Graveman and Adam Frazier,” Thompson said. “Mitch Moreland is also a guy who is special to to me. I don’t root for a team, and when I’m watching SportsCenter at the end of the night, I’m looking to see how our boys did. You remember the two to four years you had with those guys, and it’s like being a parent because you’re so proud. They are your guys for life, and it’s great to see all of them play at such a high level and also be grateful for where they came from.”
With Auburn returning seven of its nine position players and the majority of its pitching staff as well, Thompson said the expectations stay high for the 2020 season.
“On paper, it’s almost the same ballclub, and we will aim as high as we possibly can. There’s still so much we haven’t done,” Thompson said. “We played well in Omaha and just made some key errors that cost us winning those games, but our guys were very competitive in our two games against Mississippi State and Louisville.”
In addition to a return trip to Omaha, Thompson mentioned hosting an NCAA regional and winning the SEC tournament as two goals he would like to see his team accomplish.
“In this league, there’s so much you can accomplish and do, and when you win a championship, any of them whether it’s the regular season SEC title or the SEC West, those are significant accomplishments because everybody’s really good,” he said. “You had Vandy, State and Arkansas, and Ole Miss was also a game away from Omaha. Our whole league is just special. We had a record number of teams ranked at one point in the season. When you accomplish something in this league, you know you have a great ballclub.”